China pushes more people to say, 'See you in court'

The Central Committee focused its annual plenary meeting last month on promoting 'socialist rule of law' among Chinese. In one village, a lawyer who is part of the government's push helped resolved a dispute over a fish pond.

Peter Ford/Christian Science Monitor
A frog farmer's rental contract allowed the village council in Sixi, China, to drain the pond and dig mud needed for flood-protection dykes whenever it liked. But the farmer refused to allow the work – until a lawyer went through the contract with him as part of an initiative to encourage Chinese to use the law to resolve disputes.

It is not immediately apparent what a weed-choked fishpond in this nondescript village in southern China has to do with the Communist Party’s recently renewed pledge to rule the country according to law.

But for Zhao Weichun, the eager young volunteer lawyer who managed to untangle a dispute over the pond last spring between the Sixi village council and a local resident, that’s what the “rule of law” means.

“With my advice I can help villagers do things in a legal way to resolve their practical disputes,” Mr. Zhao says. “When you think about it, that is the rule of law.”

Zhao, who works for a private law firm in the nearby seafront city of Zhuhai, has joined a year-old local government-funded project to bring legal expertise to villages. On bi-weekly visits, he offers free advice, mediates disputes, and tries to inculcate a better understanding of the law among villagers and local party cadres alike.

Local authorities all over China are running similar efforts as the government seeks to impose what it calls “socialist rule of law.” Last month, for the first time, the Communist Party’s Central Committee devoted its annual plenary meeting to what that means and how to achieve it.

It clearly does not mean what “rule of law” means in the West, says Randy Peerenboom, a Beijing-based law professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne. For a start, the ruling Communist Party is above the law. Rather, he suggests, the government has in mind “rule by law,” using law as a tool.

But that still requires people to have faith in the courts and the legal system; few citizens in China have such faith, and the government says it is keen to rectify that.

Moving away from 'letters and petitions'

At present, most people with a grievance against government officials in China do not sue for redress. Instead they use an ancient system of “letters and petitions,” appealing to ever higher levels of government for a review of their complaints. That scarcely ever works and leads to politically embarrassing crowds of disgruntled people outside petition offices.

“The party wants to get these people off the streets and into the courts,” says Susan Finder, founder of the Supreme Peoples Court Monitor blog and an expert on Chinese law. “For that, they’ll need legal advice.”

The program that pays Zhao a small stipend to try to nip social problems in the bud in the Doumen district of Zhuhai – a sprawling collection of villages living largely from fish farms – seems to be having an effect.

The number of petitioners in Doumen over the first 10 months of this year has fallen by 49 percent from the same period last year, according to figures from the local government.

“Not all the drop is due to the legal advice scheme, but it has definitely helped,” says Liu Chunming, the official in charge of the program. “If a lawyer is there to help villagers find legal channels, they will believe in the law rather than in petitions.”

Explaining the contract

The fishpond here, where a villager planned to raise frogs, is a case in point. His rental contract allowed the village council to drain the pond and dig mud needed for flood-protection dykes whenever it liked. But he refused to allow the work to be done.

“We tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen to us,” said a member of the village council who asked not to be identified because he did not have permission from local government officials to talk to a reporter.

Last April, the council turned to Zhao, who went through the contract clause by clause with the frog farmer, explaining that if he did not abide by it and a flood then damaged neighboring fish farms, he would be liable. That convinced the farmer to allow his pond to be dug out.

“If there had been a flood, the guy would never have been able to compensate everyone, and people would have come to us for compensation,” said the village official. “We would not have had the money either, and things could have got out of hand. It would have been a huge mess.

“Lawyer Zhao saved us a lot of trouble,” he added.

One reason Chinese citizens have been reluctant to take local officials to court is that they know they have practically no chance of winning their cases. According to Supreme Court statistics cited by the government-run China Youth Daily, between 1990 and 2012 courts ruled in favor of the plaintiff in only 5,000 of the 1.9 million administrative cases they heard.

In no small part that is because local judges are reluctant to overturn decisions taken by the local government that pays their salaries. And in towns and small cities, the judges and government officials are all members of the same Communist Party-dominated local elites and know each other well.

“People will take their cases to court only if they think they will be heard fairly,” points out Ms. Finder.

The Communist Party took a step in that direction at the recent plenum, proposing regional circuit courts that should be free of local political pressures when they hear cross-jurisdictional cases.

Another reform, announced earlier this month, will make it much easier for citizens to sue the government when it comes into force next May, legal experts say. At the moment, courts have to positively decide to hear a case, says Wang Cailing, deputy head of the Administrative Law committee of the All China Lawyers Association. In the future, “the default position is that courts will automatically take these cases unless they deliberately decide not to,” he explains. “This is a major change.”

But few observers expect any changes to happen quickly, given the widespread ignorance of the law. “In many cases, villagers break the law because they don’t know what the law is,” says the Sixi village council official. “Village cadres can’t always explain things clearly, but lawyers can.”

“Most villagers don’t understand the law at all, and nor do many government officials have a very strong grip on it,” sighs Zhao, the lawyer. “This is a social problem,” he adds, and in his part of China, “it could take a hundred lawyers working for 10 or 20 years” to solve it.

“Getting the concept of law into people’s heads … is a huge educational project,” agrees Finder. “When even walking someone through a contract he has signed seems to be a big thing, these are very early days.” 

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